[Advaita-l] Sankara and maNDana - jnAna, jnAna-karma samuccaya and prasaMkhyAna

Vidyasankar Sundaresan svidyasankar at hotmail.com
Mon May 3 17:09:45 CDT 2010

Given the small excursus comparing Sankara and maNDana in a recent discussion,
I thought I would share a few observations with the list.


Sankara bhagavatpAda is uncompromising in his view that jnAna alone (and not a
combination of jnAna and karmA) is the means to moksha. This is a direct corollary
of the fact that the highest jnAna (I am brahman) entails the knowledge that the
Self is never an agent nor an experiencer (nAham kartA bhoktA vA) of action and
its fruits.


The basic problem, as I see it, is that it is the same seeker who graduates, so to
speak, to the status of the jnAnI. The same person, who has been thinking of
himself as a doer of actions and experiencer of their consequences, needs to let
go of all action, including the very notion that he is a doer and an experiencer.
What this means for Sankara bhagavatpAda and his tradition is that there needs
to be a full renunciation of action for the seeker of liberation and then there is no
fresh action enjoined upon the jnAnI.

Other thinkers construe the situation differently. There is one strand of thought, 
countered in Sankara bhagavatpAda's commentaries, that man can never escape
from action as long as he lives in a body and therefore karmA and jnAna need to
be combined for as long as one lives (yAvaj-jIvam). One of the bases for this line
of thinking is that if prescribed daily and occasional ritual actions (nitya and
naimittika karmA) are not performed, that leads to sin. Therefore, there can be no
total and full renunciation of ALL actions; only a renunciation of actions motivated
by desire (kAmya karmA) can be done. The central advaita answer to this is that
the jnAnI who knows that the true referent of the word "I" is brahman, does not
even have the notion, "I am an agent" and therefore naturally renounces ALL
actions, including the prescribed daily and occasional ritual actions. No sin can
apply in such a case.

There is yet another take on the situation and I believe maNDana miSra, the
author of brahmasiddhi, falls under this category of thinkers. Here, it is said that
although hearing the teaching of the vedAnta (SravaNa) tells the seeker that he
is in reality a non-agent, such knowledge is not enough for moksha, because the
notion "I am a doer of action" is not thereby eradicated. So, what is needed is
continued meditation (sometimes equated with manana and nididhyAsana), which
generates the liberating knowledge in the seeker's own personal experience. This
stance is presented as one pUrvapaksha, in the upadeSasAhasrI as "prasaMkhyAnam
ataH kAryaM yAvad AtmA anubhUyate." It is unclear to me whether prasaMkhyAna-
vAda intends that one should repeat "ahaM brahmAsmI" like a japa, or whether it
involves a sustained and uninterrupted dhyAna on the notion of "ahaM brahmAsmi".
In either case, there are problems. It seems to me that the prasaMkhyAna vAdin
wants to be partly in the jnAna-karma samuccaya camp till the AtmAnubhava
moment and partly in the Sankaran camp after the moment of AtmAnubhava.

Maybe because of this very reason, the refutation by Sankara bhagavatpAda and
sureSvara of this position also seems to be a very misunderstood one. Even as acute
a scholar as Sengaku Mayeda, who has made an excellent translation and study of
the upadeSasAhasrI, thinks that there is a self-contradiction involved when Sankara
rejects prasaMkhyAna vAda in a verse chapter of the upadeSasAhasrI and then goes
on to teach parisaMkhyAna meditation in the third prose chapter of the same text.
As far as I can see, there is no self-contradiction at all here. What is needed is to
refine one's understanding of what Sankara bhagavatpAda actually says about this.

There is no denying the fact that for most people, a one-time SravaNa does not lead
to understanding and that further contemplation is needed. This is addressed in one
passage of the brahmasUtra bhAshya where the repeated instruction of tat tvam asi
to Svetaketu is discussed. There is also no denying the fact that jnAna culminates in
anubhava - as Sankara bhagavatpAda himself says in the sUtra bhAshya - anubhava-
avasAnattvAt (no matter in what sense we take the word avasAna).

However, what he objects to is the idea that manana-nididhyAsana leads to a new
knowledge that is different from what is contained in the SravaNa. What is needed is
for the seeker to understand the ultimate reality of his own non-agency and to really
and naturally renounce all action. Merely sustaining a dhyAna on the notion of "ahaM
brahmAsmi" or repeating it like a japa, without understanding and examining what it
means, is not going to generate a new kind of liberating knowledge. The content of
whatever has been conveyed through the vedAnta vAkya will not change between
SravaNa and manana-nididhyAsana. If the correct liberating jnAna can arise as a 
result of manana-nididhyAsana, it cannot be a new thing, but only a better grasp
of the correct liberating jnAna that was already conveyed through SravaNa. Indeed,
there can be cases of people for whom even a one-time SravaNa of the vedAnta
vAkya is sufficient to result in the rise of the correct jnAna at once. If one objects
that this is only a theoretical possibility, that is not quite the same as proving that
it is an IM-possibility. On the one hand, if one does not truly understand the purport
of the vedAnta vAkya and is never prepared to renounce all actions, then no amount
of contemplation on an un-understood sentence will result in liberation from action.
On the other hand, if one does not truly understand the vedAnta vAkya and never
takes the required steps to properly understand it, then one is left with the same
avidyA as before.

It is true that meditation without proper understanding of the vedAnta will not lead
to moksha. However, this does not mean that after properly understanding what is
taught by the SAstra and the guru, meditation should not be done! All that is called
jnAna-nishThA by Sankara bhagavatpAda is nothing different from what the correct
relationship is between meditation and jnAna. A total renunciation of all actions,
saMnyAsa, is a prerequisite in Sankara bhagavatpAda's teaching here. It is also only
for this that he then goes on to describe parisaMkhyAna in a prose chapter. This
"meditation" is basically a brief analysis of Atma-anAtma-viveka and reasoning to
fully grasp the teachings about brahmAtmaikatva in the upanishads. Once the proper
jnAna is grasped, nothing  remains to be done, except for renouncing all action. This
is called vidvat saMnyAsa in later texts. If the renunciation of action was already
done prior to this process, that is called vividishA saMnyAsa.

Now, one may ask, isn't the "renouncing of all action" itself an action? Doesn't the
gItA caution us about karmA and a-karmA? The answer is that the gItA teaching is
all about the correct reasons behind renouncing all action. If I decide to formally
renounce all action in an impulsive moment today, only to have desires for one thing
or another awaken again tomorrow, that is not conducive to my good. Or, if I want
to renounce the correct course of action only because I am afraid of what its results
and consequences will be, I will have accomplished neither what can be accomplished
through action nor what is learnt through its renunciation. However, for one who does
not even have the notion of doership, who has transcended even the need for action,
the renouncing of all karmA will be a natural event. For the seeker who has made a
prior and firm commitment to liberation and therefore formally renounced all karmA,
the gItA also teaches in the dhyAna-yoga chapter, SanaiS Sanair uparamed buddhyA
dhRti-gRhItayA, and the entire apparatus and process of vedAnta SravaNa, manana
and nididhyAsana are there for his aid. It is only for this reason that sureSvara says
in the naishkarmyasiddhi, that there is indeed an injunction for saMnyAsa as a part of
the path to moksha - tvam arthasya avabodhAya vidhir apy ASritaH. This vidhi is
really unique. Rather than impelling one to do a new action, it tells you to renounce
all action! It takes the person who thinks of himself as a doer of actions and tells
him, "renounce action (because you are not really a doer of any action)."

Another question can be, isn't a mind needed to process the vedAntic analysis and
reasoning? What then of the much vaunted "destruction of mind" (manonASa) that
advaitins talk about? The answer is again in my favorite bRhadAraNyaka bhAshya
passage, 1.4.7 - liberation cannot be achieved by forcibly trying to quieten the mind,
but the steady recollection of the AtmajnAna taught in the upanishads will itself lead
to the quiescence of the mind (citta vRtti nirodha). As gauDapAdAcArya has already
mentioned, prior to Sankara bhagavatpAda himself, manaso hy amanIbhAve dvaitaM
naivopalabhyate and amanastAM tadA yAti grAhyAbhAve tad agraham. 

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